Scottish strain plays loud and long

Entering the bank

Whenever I’m in Montréal with a little extra time I’ll go into the Royal Bank at 360 St. Jacques in the old town. The Royal was founded in Halifax, but Nova Scotian reserve was let loose when it came to the bank’s new head office in Canada’s cultural and financial capital. It’s a remarkable entrance: high coffered cathedral ceilings, bronze fittings and crests, marble walls and counters, hand-painted wood, hand-broken marble mosaics in an Aztec-like pattern, gilded plaster. When I’m here I think of Earle McLaughlin.
I was a writer for Financial Times of Canada, which began as the Montreal Financial Times in 1912. I’m not in Montréal as much as I once was. It was home for more than thirty years. My schooling and early working years were there. But I came to the national capital a long time ago and live next to Armenia now on Queen Elizabeth Driveway, on the west side of the canal where flowers and trees get tended by the taxes of all. It’s one of the perks of a capital.

Armenian Embassy

It’s even more so in Washington. QE Drive was the first boulevard planned in Ottawa, once planning began. In its early years the capital was a mudhole in spring, a dustbowl in summer and impassable in winter. Fall foliage was a time of great beauty because the forest was everywhere. Now the ravages of weather have been overcome by technology but the forest has disappeared as people have flocked to the capital.
Earle was a storied bank guy, a direct link to the Scots who came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to run the country’s money. They succeeded brilliantly. So much so that near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, through the worst financial meltdown the world has ever known, worse some say than the crash of 1929 that brought on the great depression, Canada came off better than anywhere.
Financially, fiscally, structurally Canada was hurt less than any country in the world, some of which were devastated, like Ireland, or virtually destroyed, like Iceland. All but one of the thirteen largest banks in the United States were about to collapse in the depths of the credit crash in 2008. They were all “at serious risk of failure,” is the way Ben Bernanke put it, who was chair of the United States federal reserve. Canada’s Bernanke was Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney. He faced no such fearsome cliffhanger. McLaughlin, Muir, Finlayson, McMaster, MacKinnon, et alia, et alia, helped us here by managing prudently.

McLaughlin in his prime

Bank of Montreal was established in 1817 with five Scottish directors, joined by three more a year later. In 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened, managed and controlled by Scots immigrants. Nova Scotia the province, of course, means New Scotland, which pretty well tells where the original non-native settlers came from.
Before 1971, Canadians of Scottish descent were a separate census category and around that time they registered as the third largest ethnic group in the country after the English and French. They have always remained a unique cultural group, including highlanders, lowlanders and Scotch-Irish from Ulster, and they proved influential in the growth of the Canadian economic and political framework, within which they often became leaders. Thirty percent of industrialists in the 1910 census self-identified as Scottish.

Bishop Strachan

Money matters particularly grabbed their attention, and they largely controlled the trade in furs, timber, banking and railroad management. Almost one quarter of Canada’s industrial leaders in the early twentieth century had been born in Scotland, and another quarter had Scottish-born fathers. As they became established as a major ethnic component of the fast growing Canadian population during the mid-nineteenth century, they came to dominate in other areas as well, such as education and politics. All but three of the Fathers of Confederation — all but two if Joey Smallwood is excluded — were Scots or of Scottish descent.
The Scottish diaspora to the new world spread the influence of its late eighteenth century enlightenment, an optimistic belief in the practical ability of people to use reason to make things better — the ideas of Adam Smith, David Hume and the like.
Scotland’s emphasis on universal, free education was adopted in Canada. Scottish ideals of scholarship and intellect took root here. Leading colleges and universities were established by John Strachan in Upper Canada (Trinity College at UofT) and by a bequest of James McGill in Montreal. McGill University is renowned for its work in chemistry, medicine and biology, where there are long-established Scottish traditions. Peter Redpath, Montreal-born son of a Scottish immigrant and Rideau Canal contractor — his father John was part of the consortium that built the towering Jones Falls Dam, in its day the largest in North America — paid for the McGill museum, the library and a university chair.

Jones Falls Dam

There are a host of Scottish names writ large in the Canadian pantheon. After Alexander Graham Bell conceived of the telephone he went to find resources in the U.S. He had great success there but his heart remained in Canada and his remains rest here. Global media barons Beaverbrook and Thomson, whose first daily paper in Europe was The Scotsman. Donald Smith and George Stephen, the principal drivers of the near-impossible, bankruptcy defying ribbon of track that bound the nation together from Atlantic to Pacific. Alexander Mackenzie was the first Liberal prime minister (1873-78). William Lyon Mackenzie, who led a revolt against autocratic rule in Upper Canada in 1839, became a symbol of Canadian radicalism. His rebellion dramatized the need to reform the country’s outmoded constitution. Sir Richard McBride was premier of British Columbia from 1903-1915. William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950), who was as proud of his Scottish heritage as he was of his rebellious grandfather, was three times prime minister and served in that office longer than any other. For over 200 years, Scots have entered the country in a constant flow. Their presence powerfully permeates the Canadian culture of politics, education, religion and business.
John A. Macdonald, Old Tomorrow, was a bank director before he was prime minister. New generations and new peoples have come on or come back to loosen the Scottish grip on Canada’s money supply. But Scots set the pattern and so far it has been good, allowing for some Keynesian adjustments along the way.


2 thoughts on “Scottish strain plays loud and long

  1. Remember the Darien Project and the havoc it created in Scottish life. Lessons about bubbles were learned then and applied. Thus, the stellar performance of Canadian finance in latter days. The Bank Act is an embodiment of the Scottish sensibility. The Senate Committee which reviews it every 10 years is a part of this legacy.

    The Saltire flies still in Canada (the 800 year old flag with the Andrew cross).



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